Extended Thoughts on ‘Cool Runnings’
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Written by Lynn Siefert, Tommy Swerdlow, Michael Goldberg, and Michael Ritchie
Starring John Candy, Doug E. Doug, Malik Yoba, Leon Robinson, Rawle D. Lewis
Throughout my lifetime, there have been a number of heartbreaking deaths in popular culture. I won’t rank them in terms of least to most heartbreaking, for myriad reasons, but one of the saddest has always been John Candy passing away in 1994. I was sad about this at age 9 even though, looking at his filmography, I can’t imagine I would’ve seen most of the movies Candy was known for when he passed on. Certainly, I saw Home Alone and The Rescuers Down Under as a kid, but I didn’t see most of his movies—Canadian Bacon, Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—until after he passed away. But even as a child, I recognized one of the many reasons why Candy was beloved by millions of people: his warmth as a performer.
Candy was able to fit as well in movies ostensibly targeted at kids—I say “ostensibly” because Home Alone and Uncle Buck have kids in them, but are a bit more mature than, say, Disney live-action movies—as well as raunch-filled comedies because of that warmth. He was the very picture of joviality in his movies, though few of those films delved into the often sad or dark undercurrents underneath. A notable and well-liked example is, of course, John Hughes’ best film by a country mile, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which works almost entirely in spite of Hughes’ script. Steve Martin and Candy have pitch-perfect chemistry in that film, and Candy sells, as best as he can, the switch to drama in the late going as well as the character’s more pathetic elements. Plain and simple, John Candy is the kind of performer the world is better off for having, even if the films he’s in aren’t always winners.
And Cool Runnings isn’t exactly a winner, but it coasts by with charm to spare. I hadn’t seen this in nearly 20 years, since it came out in 1993, but was pleasantly surprised by the first hour, if not the entire film. Though there are aspects that clearly remind the audience that yes, you are watching a Walt Disney Pictures film—some of the character names are intentionally cutesy, and Doug E. Doug might as well be named Comic Relief—it’s not overly childish or immature. The film plays extremely fast and loose with real life—the basic concept of a Jamaican bobsledding team going to the 1988 Olympics to compete is accurate, but that’s about it—but the first two acts of the movie are enjoyable and pleasant enough, thanks in no small part to Candy’s performance as the team’s unlikely coach.
The movie fails by trying too hard, honestly. I got into this on the podcast, but where the movie works is in building character without doing a lot of heavy lifting. Any time the story threatens to get in the way of this character development, the movie just about falls apart. That shouldn’t be a problem, too—character development typically works because of the conflicts presented to the characters. How do they overcome the conflicts? What we know of these people informs us of how they will react, so the conflicts in Cool Runnings should dovetail nicely with how the characters grow from their humble beginnings in Jamaica to their triumphant attempts to win the gold medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
But that’s not how it goes, partly because the real story of the four Jamaican men who went to Calgary to compete as bobsledders isn’t interesting enough for the script, which creates an almost entirely fictional version of what happened. Now, though I mentioned being distracted by this both during the film and afterwards, I understand that any fictional film based on a true story is just that: a fictional film. But the liberties that the filmmakers take here are questionable at best, and detrimental to the film’s overall success at worst. First of all, the character played by Candy is completely created from thin air. Irving Blitzer is not a real person, but what’s more troubling is that his character arc—trying to redeem himself for having cheated at the Winter Olympics as a bobsledder—is just as fictional. Had one of the Jamaican coaches been a cheater in the past, it would’ve made perfect sense to include such a plot in the film. But that’s not true (at least, if it’s true, it’s not public knowledge). Since it isn’t based in truth, the subplot is an albatross on the film. Candy does his damnedest to sell the story, especially in a late-in-the-game monologue, but I’d rather hang out with these characters than watch them struggle.
The struggles are pointless, not because we automatically know where the story is going—and the real story diverts in many ways from the fictional one, including exactly how the Jamaican team ends their run—but because they never feel anything less than forced. Will Irving’s cheating past come back to haunt him seriously, or will it just be a quickly overcome obstacle? Of course it’ll be overcome. The idea of a character in a Disney movie cheating is, perhaps, striking, but there’s no complexity to the issue. Only one of the Jamaicans finds out about Irv’s cheating, thus it never feels important. If it doesn’t affect the lead characters in any noticeable way, why should we care about it?
Ultimately, Cool Runnings succeeds almost entirely because of its cast. Even in the early going, when we’re watching the characters goof around as they struggle to understand the ins and outs of bobsledding, it’s enjoyable to watch thanks to the chemistry of the actors on screen. Leon Robinson, Doug E. Doug, Malik Yoba, Rawle D. Lewis, and Candy aren’t delivering career-best performances in this film, but they all have an appropriate amount of heart and dedication that remains consistent from beginning to end. Doug is, perhaps, the only performer who lays it on a bit thick, but the script sets him up as the most frequent provider of comic relief. After a point, his humor becomes obnoxious, not endearing, but his reality-check moment near the end, proving to be a voice of reason, brings his character back down to Earth.
And it is the performers we can thank here, not the script, which tries to be clever randomly at various points in the film, failing in the process. Something else the script creates wholesale is the Jamaican characters, whose names verge on forced whimsy as soon as they’re uttered. Doug E. Doug’s character is named Sanka Coffie. Get it? GET IT? Yoba’s character is Yul Brenner, as opposed to Yul Brynner. These moments aren’t examples of wit, but lazy writing. Funny names are, to me, never successful because they exist simply to call attention to themselves. Specific to this movie, they seem out of place because the film is a relatively straightforward, serious look at a true story. And since the real men in the Jamaican bobsledding team didn’t have goofy names, it’s even more of a sore thumb.
In general, Cool Runnings aims specifically to be a movie-length definition of the word “pleasant,” and mostly succeeds. Its director, Jon Turtletaub, has gone onto relative fame within the Walt Disney Company, directing both National Treasure films as well as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but even those movies aren’t particularly ambitious. (I’ve seen all three in the past. I think. I’m honestly not sure, and that speaks to their quality: not good, not bad, just…there.) And I can’t honestly tell you that I’ll remember much about Cool Runnings a week or a month from now. Something Michael and I touched on during the podcast, though, ties to this basic idea, of pleasant but forgettable movies: they were somehow John Candy’s forte.
Candy was always lovable, but for the most part—note that I’m not saying this about his whole career—his movies aren’t what we remember. We remember his characters, perhaps, but most of all, we remember his presence. Unlike fellow died-too-young-and-happened-to-be-overweight comedians Chris Farley and John Belushi, there was almost never a streak of meanness in Candy’s performances. He exuded warmth from head to toe, even in movies like Cool Runnings, where he plays the straight man dealing with a redemptive arc. Many other actors, maybe, could’ve played this role, but something about Candy’s charm makes him extremely endearing to us. At its best, this movie is endearing without trying, effortless, light, and fun.